It’s that time of year again, folks. Oscar season has officially arrived. As always, it kicked off with the fall film festival season this year, where a number of major contenders made their debut to select audiences, critics, and awards analysts. And while we’re still a couple of months away from critics groups handing out their awards, we’re starting to get a pretty good idea of how the Best Picture race will take shape. Or so we think.
To be honest, this time last year Green Book surprised everyone by winning the TIFF People’s Choice Award (a harbinger for Oscar success) but was still considered too divisive and too pedestrian to actually win anything major at the Oscars. And look how that turned out.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still discuss the Best Picture race at a glance, and I’ll be updating this post frequently throughout the season as the race inevitably shifts and morphs. What is true today is not necessarily true tomorrow, and as always, critics don’t vote on Oscars—that’s down to Academy members, and we won’t know for sure what they think about this year’s crop of films until January.
So with all of that hemming and hawing out of the way, let’s dive into the Best Picture race with a look at the frontrunners, other contenders, and films that still haven’t been seen by anyone. Behold, my 2020 Best Picture predictions.
Films are listed in alphabetical order. For a deeper dive into some of these contenders, check out my other recent Oscar Beat columns.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
So I’m using “frontrunner” as something of a loose term here, but these are all films that have been seen by many people—either in release or at festivals—and whose reaction suggests a major presence on the Oscar circuit to come. The only one of these that has hit theaters already is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which seems destined to be a serious contender across the board. The film picked up stellar reviews and is a genuine box office hit, as it’s now Tarantino’s second highest-grossing film of all time. It’s also a story about Hollywood, which we know the Academy traditionally loves, and boasts a pair of excellent performances from two of the biggest movie stars in history. This is quite possibly Tarantino’s most formidable Oscar contender since Pulp Fiction.
Then there’s Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to somewhat divisive (yet still overall positive) reviews and then shocked pretty much everyone by winning the TIFF People’s Choice Award. Nine of the last 10 winners of this award have scored a Best Picture nomination, and many of them went on to win the big prize—including Green Book, another film deemed too divisive to be a major contender. Jojo is probably unlikely to be a serious candidate in the acting categories, which could hinder its chances at the overall prize, but the Fox Searchlight movie’s sweet message of compassion vs. hate and its TIFF award win make it impossible to deny as a Best Picture hopeful.
Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s Korean-language family drama Parasite is something of the critical darling pick at the moment, and the buzz around the Neon film is deafening. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year (which is not necessarily a great predictor of Oscar success), then made waves on the festival circuit—it was routinely drawing some of the longest lines at Telluride and TIFF given how many people wanted to see the movie. But more than that, it absolutely delivers as a searing, frequently shocking indictment of economic inequality. The less you know about the film the better, but it feels like a major contender in multiple categories and is likely to clean up on during the critics awards. And lest you think a foreign-language film is working at too great a disadvantage, keep in mind that Roma scored three Oscars last year.
Speaking of, Netflix has a bit of a “problem” this year in that they can’t simply focus their efforts on one movie. It’s entirely possible they wind up with three Best Picture nominations, two of which I’d consider serious frontrunners at the moment. First there’s Marriage Story, which feels destined to be the “character-centric” pick in the Best Picture category. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s emotionally devastating chronicle of a couple going through the process of a divorce is his best film yet, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver career-best performances. If Kramer vs. Kramer can win Best Picture, certainly Marriage Story has a shot.
Then there’s The Irishman, which is an epically long (three hours and 20 minutes) gangster drama from an iconic filmmaker. Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-works film premiered at the New York Film Festival to rave reviews, vaulting the Netflix original into the frontrunners circle in the Oscar race. According to critics there, this is definitely not “minor” Scorsese and could go all the way, as the director tackles themes of mortality, regret, and aging with the legendary trio of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci anchoring the film. Could he win his second-ever Best Director Oscar?
In the Mix
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Dolemite Is My Name
Ford v Ferrari
A Hidden Life
Pain & Glory
The Two Popes
So there’s a pretty robust crop of contenders here, some more formidable than others. Fox’s Ford v Ferrari belongs in the “top tier” so to speak, as filmmaker James Mangold’s (Logan) old-fashioned racing drama is pure satisfaction bolstered by a pair of terrific performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. There’s a worry it may be too formulaic to break into the fray, but it’s masterfully executed and if it’s a box office hit, it’ll be hard to ignore.
I’d also throw Netflix’s The Two Popes into that top tier, as the two-hander starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins is a real crowdpleaser and played well on the festival circuit. This is the kind of feel-good, middle-of-the-road movie that can often times break into the Best Picture race (see: The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, etc.), which similarly applies to the Mister Rogers drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Director Marielle Heller breaks the film out of a familiar structure, and it’s definitely a tearjerker, but it’ll be interesting to see if the fact that Tom Hanks’ Mister Rogers is a supporting character (Matthew Rhys is the lead) has any significant impact on the film’s chances. And speaking of true-story movies, Renee Zellwegger is all but assured a spot in the Best Actress race for her transcendent turn as Judy Garland in Judy, and while the film itself is just slightly above average, that hasn’t stopped other similar biopics in the past (see again: Theory of Everything).
Amazon Studios has its own serious contender in The Report, which tells the true story of the government’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program. The film premiered at Sundance early this year to stellar reviews, especially for star Adam Driver, but it may be overshadowed come awards time when folks are all about Marriage Story. It also remains to be seen if Amazon is still in the business of actively campaigning for Oscars—after dual wins for Manchester by the Sea they’ve steered into decidedly more commercial material.
Then we come to Joker. The gritty, grounded, character-driven DC Comics twist shocked everyone by winning the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival, but reviews on the whole have been a bit less universally enthusiastic. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is undeniably stellar, but the reaction to the film (and its filmmaker) will likely better determine its chances as we get closer to the voting period. If voting happened now, I could see Joker getting into the Best Picture race. But who knows what three months of hot takes and discourse will do to the film’s reputation. There’s also the fact that the Academy only just nominated a superhero movie for Best Picture last year, and Joker is ultra-violent on top of that—a double no-go for traditional Academy voters.
And will Disney push Avengers: Endgame as heavily as they pushed Black Panther? The highest-grossing film of all time is certainly a monumental achievement, and other movies to break that record scored Best Picture nods (Titanic, Avatar, E.T.), so it’ll be interesting to see if the Academy feels like recognizing this concluding chapter to the MCU.
Paramount’s Rocketman tried to follow the Bohemian Rhapsody playbook earlier this year, and while the Elton John biopic drew stronger reviews than the Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury movie, it didn’t quite reach the same box office heights. Still, if Paramount mounts an additional campaign during awards season, it could come back around. Similarly, strong campaigns for Ad Astra and the A24 indie The Farewell could possibly push them into the Best Picture circle depending on how crowded things get, but at this stage the movies feel admittedly a bit “small” compared to the buzz surrounding the major contenders, and the passion for Ad Astra in particular just may not be there. And Uncut Gems drew strong notices for Adam Sandler’s performance, although it’s possible the Safdie Brothers film is fated to follow in the footsteps of Good Time as a critically loved but Academy-ignored feature.
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is surely one of the most entertaining films of the year, and I’m curious to see if Lionsgate attempts an Oscar push or if they’re simply happy with box office success during the Thanksgiving corridor. This one certainly has the potential to be a huge hit. Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name is similarly entertaining, but it feels like that one is being framed more around Eddie Murphy’s comeback narrative than a genuine Best Picture play—although things could certainly change.
In addition to Jojo Rabbit, frequent Oscar winner Fox Searchlight also has Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which has critical clout if not significant buzz. Warner Bros. will attempt to push Destin Daniel Cretton’s heartbreaking death row drama Just Mercy, which I felt was an incredibly strong picture but drew somewhat muted response from critics on the whole on the festival circuit. And watch out for Pedro Almodovar’s autobiographical Spanish-language drama Pain & Glory, which boasts a spectacular Antonio Banderas performance and could be a sneaky contender in the big race.
Still to Be Seen
The Good Liar
Almost all the major contenders have now been seen by critics, and of those that haven’t, there are basically two that feel like they have the biggest chance of interrupting the race: Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller 1917 and Greta Gerwig’s literary adaptation Little Women. Universal finally let the cat out of the bag that 1917—which was shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins—is constructed to look like it’s all one shot. That certainly sparked Academy voters to Best Picture-winner Birdman, so it’ll be interesting to see if 1917 similarly has the goods. And few films are as highly anticipated this year as Gerwig’s Lady Bird follow-up Little Women, which boasts a stellar ensemble cast and could do gangbusters box office during the holidays.
Clint Eastwood made another late entry to the Oscar race with his true-story drama Richard Jewell, which certainly has a solid pedigree (Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates in the cast, Billy Ray on the script). But the filmmaker has been much more miss than hit lately (remember The 15:17 to Paris? Neither does anyone else) so it’s tough to know what to make of this one just yet.
There’s also the Fox News drama Bombshell, which looks like it could vault Charlize Theron into the Best Actress race, and Todd Haynes’ political drama Dark Waters—although Haynes’ last film, Wonderstruck, was a non-starter after his critical darling Carol scored a few nods. Bill Condon’s The Good Liar could possibly be a contender, and then of course there’s Cats.
Tom Hooper famously won Best Director and Best Picture with The King’s Speech and his follow-up, Les Miserables, landed him smack dab in the middle of the Oscar race once again, but his last feature—The Danish Girl—was less successful aside from a Best Supporting Actress win. Well you can’t say Hooper is returning to the prestige drama well with this one, as Cats appears to be a very ambitious, CG-driven take on the long-running stage musical. Will it continue to be the greatest meme-generator of the year when it hits theaters, or will the joke be on us? We’ll find out soon enough.
Stay tuned, folks. We’re just getting started.